Opens December 16, 2016
Written by: Allan Loeb
Starring: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Jacob Latimore, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool
Children bury their parents. That’s the normal way. Parents are not supposed to bury their children, especially if the youths are alive barely old enough to know what life’s all about. So when Howard Inlet (Will Smith) suffers the loss of his six-year-old daughter to cancer, he exudes enough grief to, what? to turn the audience into a bucket of sniffles and make collateral money for Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Kleenex. Director David Frankel, whose “Marley and Me” is a soft and cuddly tale of lessons taught to a family by a neurotic dog, is out this time to deliver a more important, serious message. How to convince a distraught father to snap out of his funk, to get him back to the living and take him out of his melancholy routine of riding his bike, sitting in a dog park moping, and neither eating nor sleeping.
There’s not much comedy, unusual for a commercial movie around Christmas which, despite a feel-good ending can put an audience into a mild state of depression. But there is a look at the cruel machinations of people out for money who opt to secretly film Howard showing signs of a psychotic break, its snide focus reminiscent of the director’s “The Devil Wears Prada.” Howard is a part-owner of a major New York advertising company whose partners want to provide evidence that he is a mad men, but not the kind of man men that advertisers were called in the TV series. After Howard takes leave of work for two years, the company gets an offer to be bought out, but Howard, who must agree to sell, refuses to converse with the buyers and thereby holds onto his own shares. The partners, Whit Yardsham (Edward Norton), Simon Scott (Michael Peña) and Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet) devise a complex scheme. They will try to prove to the authorities that he is not in a psychologically fit condition to make a judgment on the proposed sale. The partners will then have the authority to sell off the company without Howard’s agreement.
After discovering that he is sending mail to three abstractions, Death, Love and Time, the partners hire three off-off- Broadway actors Aimee Moore (Keira Knightley) to play Love, Raffi (Jacob Latimore) to play Time, and Brigitte (Helen Mirren) to play Death. They three thespians stalk Howard pretending that they actually received his mail, that they are not human beings but sprites. To reveal more on how they prove Howard to be non compos mentis would be to expose spoilers, but suffice it to say that it’s not so much Howard who has problems, but the other partners, the ones who do the hiring of the actors, and that by solving the problems of all four—Howard, Whit, Simon and Claire—Frankel could devise a happy ending. The audience will then cry tears of joy and will abandon tears of sorrow.
The whole episode is lacking the kind of humor and organic, rather than forced, pathos, that made other, initially depressing, Christmas fare uplifting. Think of “The Bishop’s Wife” (Cary Grant as a guardian angel), and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (banker contemplates suicide and communicates with celestial bodies). The performances are fine: Will Smith, who can do no wrong, changes from a rah-rah charismatic force to an image of seemingly incurable depression; Edward Norton, is a divorced father whose daughter won’t talk to him; and Michael Peña faces an existential crisis that he hides from his family. Of the three would-be sprites, Helen Mirren is the most effective as “Death,” and Howard’s relationship to Madeleine (Naomie Harris) as a grief counselor who lost her own young child, is reasonably credible. There are spellbinding scenes of dominoes, a hundred or more, that no other movie can touch, their falling one after another to symbolize building up and destroying. And one scene of Manhattan skyscrapers at night is the most ravishing shot of the Big Apple I’ve seen. As for the title of the film, presumably after the most tragic of circumstances world goes on, beauty rears its head, and we can step out of our funk to appreciate what life still has to offer.
Rated PG-13. 94 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
"I, Daniel Blake"
December 23, 2016
Opens December 23, 2016
Written by: Paul Laverty
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool
If you want to know why Trump won, watch and read the pundits for an intellectual understanding. Then see “I, Daniel Blake” for the emotional answer, using another country as an example. The principal group in the U.S. who voted Republican did not necessarily vote against their economic interests, nor are the “basket of deplorables” that Hillary stupidly called them last September. They are citizens of the world’s richest country, but they either left the labor market after an exhausting attempt to find a job or are still working but getting pay that does not buy them much more than it did it 1970. They filled the computer sheet for Trump because they wanted an outsider, one who they accept as being outside “the system,” a man who can shake up politics as usual, stop the exodus of jobs overseas, and make America great again. They will be sadly disappointed by the end of his term, but then, they were disappointed by regular, experienced Republicans and Democrats before.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) could be a stand-in for the unfortunate, poor whites in America. He paid his taxes for most of a typical working life as a handyman, but after a heart attack at age fifty-nine, his doctor told him to take considerable time off. He is disabled; not a fake, not looking to scam, and because he is living in an industrially developed country like the UK, he should have expected to eke out a basic living on the dole. We watch the downturn of this friendly chap who knows how to measure wood, cut it, and place it cozily on furniture to make a bookcase, but is stymied by a welfare department whose personnel do their best to drive people into either a psychotic break or the grave. The digital world is no friend of Blake. His skill with his hands appears obsolete, computers add to the layers of bureaucracy that whose hoops he would have to jump through. The bureaucracy delays his appeal for weeks when he is about to lose his Newcastle flat, and his eager search for employment is a waste of time. There are no jobs left for him, his “advanced” age doing him no favor either.
As illustrated by Ken Loach, the British director whose ideology of socialist realism kept him from straying into Hollywood, had last contributed the movie public “Jimmy Hall,” which takes place when the title character returns to depression Ireland after ten years in exile. He wants only to re-open a dance hall that gave great pleasure to the villagers, but the right-wing government and conservative church are opposed because it looks to them like the work of a socialist activist. With “I, Daniel Blake,” Loach walks us through Daniel’s wasted visits to the Newcastle welfare bureaucrats where he is regularly told that despite his disability, he is not eligible for benefits. He calls the appropriate office and must wait one hour and forty-eight minutes for an answer.
He mixes well with his neighbors, kidding the guy who lives next door who has received a package of fancy sneakers from China that he expects to sell on the street. He has a reason to look beyond his own problems when he meets Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires), a single mother with two kids, Daisy (Briana Shann) and Dylan (Dylan McKiernan). The mother risks starvation in order to provide a modicum of food for her two youngsters. He helps them get set up in Newcastle, where she has been exiled from her residence in London by the authorities. Both have no money, limited prospects, and become like a family.
To Loach’s credit, he does not portray the welfare personnel as a bunch of villains, but instead indicts the system. The hands of the government workers are tied. A “decision maker” will make the ruling on whether Daniel must return to work (he is physically unable and can’t find anything anyway), but probably even that higher official is bound by the rules of the government to deny money to anyone who is not half-dead. Blake is ready to explode and does exactly that in a scene near the conclusion.
Opening December 23, this is hardly a “Christmas movie,” in much the way that “Collateral Beauty,” a considerably inferior film, is similarly without cheer. It’s downright depressing, and not for a potential audience that wants to hear Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer in the megaplex. That’s the whole point, Loach is here to raise public concern with fellow citizens, some of whom may think that disabled people are cheating and driving Cadillacs to the welfare office. To risk a broader interpretation, perhaps Loach is disgusted with a capitalist system that refuses to hire anyone over fifty, with few possible exceptions. What’s the answer: socialism? Perhaps. Now if Bernie Sanders took up UK citizenship and became Prime Minister, what would he do? The UK is a developed nation but it is relative poor by Western European standards. Would he be able to find the money? Would he tax the rich enough but not so much to see them streaming jobs overseas?
The picture that Loach draws is in many ways the opposite of “Sicko,” directed by Michael Moore, who shows us that the British welfare system is superior to ours. People can pay for medications with pocket change, and what’s more the medical office gives them bus fare home. Neither Loach nor Moore, however, is completely correct. The answer is more nuanced. The UK does not have enough money in the public sector (neither does the U.S.) to provide minimum support to all who deserve it, but the British are not the model for medical services. Listen to reports of Brits, who like Canadians may have to wait months for a diagnostic test as simple as an MRI.
Ken Loach, in any case, is the preeminent movie director with a soft heart for the working class and the poor. His films are all worth seeing, and “I, Daniel Blake,” is considered by some to be among his best.
Unrated. 100 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
"La La Land"
Opens December 9, 2016
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J.K. Simmons
Summit Entertainment (A division of Lionsgate Films)
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool
If you’re of a certain age or simply catch up on movies made before you were born, you are likely to say “They don’t write musicals the way they used to.” You’re thinking of the oeuvre of George M. Cohan, George and Ira Gershwin, Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Some of their traditional musicals are revived on Broadway, and deservedly so. Consider “My Fair Lady,” the perfect musical; "South Pacific" with its outdated(?) theme of racial tension, “Yankee Doodle Dandy, which features a stirring performance by the great James Cagney. The splashy modern musicals are no slouches: think of the ones still playing on Broadway like “Chicago,” “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera.” The distinction between the old and the new is more a line drawn on sand than on stone. Capitalizing on the idea of doing a traditional musical, Damien Chazelle, whose “Whiplash” shows him as a man who understands and loves jazz, knocks out “La La Land” (a slang term for Los Angeles) with an opening and closing that will look familiar to any who have taken in the lavish spectacles of the forties and fifties. “La La Land” opens with a small screen logo of the company, Summit Entertainment, then surprises the audience with an expanded screen and a mention that this is a Cinemascope production. At the conclusion, we see the letters “The End.” Now that’s something you don’t see at movie endings any more.
“La La Land” is the sort of musical that might find a better environment off-Broadway than in the big ones, with one exception, the spectacular opening number, a single take, choreographed with brilliance and sung with abandon but a diversified group of Los Angeles drivers and passengers in one of those daily, tortuous jams. When one driver in a convertible, Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) honks and passes the auto driven by Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), Mia gives him the finger, which is not the best way to start a romantic relationship, but in this case, absent the bird, there would be no coupling off.
Hearing music back on land Mia enters a crowded restaurant to find Sebastian, who at first conforms to the manager’s demand that he play Christmas clichés but then takes off with the kind of jazz piano he knows and loves. This gets him fired by the boss (J.K. Simmons), so, teed off, he knocks Mia on the shoulder as he passes Mia—which qualifies as a meet-cute. For Mia, this is love at first sight; never mind that she doesn’t like him.
They get together, they talk, they dance, they click. They find out that they’re not simply drivers: they are human beings young enough to hold onto dreams. Sebastian likes jazz, but only the kind that he considers pure. He tries to influence Mia to share his affection for the music. In the planetarium they dance, literally rising through the air like a modern Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, gazing at the stars above, sharing their fantasies. He wants to stop playing what the band leaders want and to start his own club. She wants to be an actress, and takes off from her job as barista in the Warner lot whenever her smartphone informs her of an audition.
Mimicking the splashy colors favored by Jacques Demy in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”—which featured the stunning Catherine Deneuve as a 17-year-old in the French town of Cherbourg—and Demy’s use of saturated colors in “The Young Girls of Rochefort”, Chazelle alternates dazzlers like the opening scene, with fast-moving jazz compositions, Gosling on the keyboard, and slow, moody, lyrical songs. Unlike “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Music Man” and scores of other musicals, there are no memorable songs in “La La Land,” nor are the lyrics that clear to make out. The dancing cannot match that of the pros like the aforementioned Astaire and Charisse and the singing is not on the level of South Pacific’s Ezio Pinza. Nor does it have to be. Though many critics will rave and gush, ultimately this is a middling musical measured against the gold standard works of the forties and fifties but is well worth a visit for setting a romantic mood, enjoying the jazz, and feeling as good as you can after the recent political debacle in the U.S.
Rated PG-13. 128 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Josh Gordon and Will Speck's
"Office Christmas Party"
Opens December 9, 2016
Written by: Justin Malen, Laura Solon, Dan Mazer from a story by Jon Lucas, Scott Moore, Timothy Dowling
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, T.J. Miller, Jason Bateman, Kate McKinnon, Olivia Munn, Courtney B. Vance
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool
Some decades back, high school teachers (like me) enjoyed Christmas parties before they were called Holiday Parties or End-of-Season affairs. But because of some new rules that bureaucrats at the Department of Education thought up, these parties could no longer be held on school grounds. No matter: it’s not as though we had drunken orgies. We were just a bunch of mostly middle-aged, somewhat scholarly people who would not think of trying to smuggle a bottle of bourbon or some lines of coke into sacred school grounds.
But private business, we learn from “Office Christmas Party,” is another thing altogether. Offices such as the one on exhibit in Chicago (where this was filmed as well as in Atlanta) did not have to worry about complaining neighbors, since the affairs are held twenty floors or more away from any residences. Yet in the imaginations of Josh Gordon and Will Speck, who direct this Paramount production and writers Justin Malen, Laura Solon and Dan Mazer who adapt a story by Jon Lucas, Scott Moore, and Timothy Dowling, the CEO of Zenotek has banned anything that smelled or tasted like a party.
Naturally, the staff are able to ignore her orders, given that she is supposed to be on a flight to London. Perhaps everyone is looking for a way to forget, since with profits below corporate demands, forty percent of the staff are due to be fired to save money. Even worse: Carol Vanstone (Jennifer Aniston) as the Big Cheese, threatens to close the Chicago office entirely.
What passes from there is a movie that is part wild festivities and part discussions about what to do to keep all the jobs intact. They realize that if they win an account from a company led by Walter (Courtney B. Vance), considered a long shot because Walter does not like the Zenotek culture, their jobs are all saved.
“Office Christmas Party” turns into the usual succession of skits that could have come from Saturday Night Live and, in fact, uses many of that program’s performers and at least one who has had delightful experiences on the Jon Stewart Daily Show. Writers Malen, Solon and Mazer keep the gags rolling in the fast-paced style of cable TV and are graced by actors known for their comedic skills. As Josh Parker, Jason Bateman might be considered the life of your party, but in the context of this movie he is positively sedate and useful and a catalyst for some of the physical and verbal gags.
On the other hand T.J. Miller as Clay Vanstone, life-of-the-party type and the CEO’s brother who is independently wealthy from a trust fund, becomes the target of some comic gangsters who run an escort service with Abbey Lee Kershaw as the hot Savannah, but who are not against taking $300,000 taped to Clay’s body which he intends to use to provide bonuses for all the workers.
Naturally some of the jokes are flat, particularly anything said in a Chicago Uber driven by Fortune Feimster who somehow thinks that repeating the name “Carol” a great many times is amusing. Probably best of all is Tracey (Olivia Munn), who in the midst of the anarchy still comes across as a voice of reason as Lead Systems Engineer Tracey. There is considerable damage done to the office and to a couple of cars as you might expect—Christmas trees falling in a department store, for example. But the best single joke of the day can be missed if you blink: Daniel Jackson as Jesus, who is together with contemporaries from the First Century, exclaims in the elevator: “It’s my birthday.” If only the jokes were of that quality throughout, this would be a picture to draw in a quieter audience as well as the presumed millennial target.
Rated R. 106 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Written by: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese, from Shūsaku Endō’s novel
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, Ciarán Hinds, Tadanobu Asano, Ryô Kase, Sin’ya Tsukamoto, Nana Komatsu, Michié
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, New York Cool
If you’re “up” with trends in the U.S. and Western Europe, you may have noticed that a sizable number of people who were born Christians and Jews have converted to Buddhism. You would not think that a Western nation would be so gung-ho for an Eastern-based philosophy, but check out any large Barnes and Noble store and you’ll see whole sections devoted to the Buddhist way of life, both books and magazines. Why is this a great irony? Because if the Japanese waited just four hundred years, they would find that being nice to their Christians would not be a problem, and that torturing them would lead at best to a fake apostasy. Apostasy is a renouncing of your faith preferably in favor of converting to another.
Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” which premiered in Vatican City where a most favorable audience could be expected, enjoys a release here in the U.S. a few weeks later. Despite the film’s showing that thousands of people converted from Christianity back to Buddhism, the martyrdom of large numbers of Christians who refuse to give up their faith would rivet the attention of the pious. Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Bridge,” where he played another religious hero) inhabits the role of Sebastião Rodrigues in this epic bit of historical fiction, though “bit” would hardly be the word for a film that runs 162 minutes. But don’t worry. The movie, however slow moving in most spots, goes by like a flash (for me, that is), and if you find that parts are too slow, just meditate on this zen koan: “I am sitting here: I am not going anywhere, so why should I want the film to run on more quickly?”
One can’t help suspecting that Martin Scorsese, arguably among the great director of our time and the past, is a deeply religious man, even if he has been quoted as saying that he is a lapsed Catholic. The silence of the movie title is God’s own silence, seeming to ignore the hours and weeks of daily prayer by Rodrigues, and in a lesser role by his compadre Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver, in a somewhat different role from his recent “Paterson”). In the 1630’s these two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garrpe, begged their superior Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) to send them from the Iberian peninsula to Japan to find out what happened to a fellow missionary, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). He is thought to be dead, having been killed by the authorities who feared cultural imperialism from Europe—and in fact, the only Europeans the Japanese allowed into their isolated country were traders from the Netherlands who were not about to try to convert the local people to anything but buying goods.
Before they actually did find Ferreira, they had quite an adventure, but if the dangers they encountered made them sorry they ever gave up Mateus wine for Sake, there is no indication of regrets. Evoked by Rodrigo Prieto’s gorgeous cinematography on the island of Taiwan, given the character of a 17th Century Japanese village, the two Jesuits bear witness to tortures that might fit into a movie by Quentin Tarantino or by Pier Palo Pasolini’s Salò or even Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Ordinary citizens of the Christian faith are brought to the Inquisitor, Inoue (Issey Ogata) and made to step on a metal engraving of Jesus. Only the most pious of believers would refuse to do so, since all they had to do is place a foot lightly on the etching and then go on their merry ways thinking whatever they really wanted to think. But in some earlier scenes, everyone refused. For the troubles of the refuseniks, they are either tied to a cross and left to die after the executioner gives each a sip of sake (like vinegar for Christ?) but not before they have boiling water poured over them as though by a shower, dripping merrily down to make the pain more excruciating. The bodies are wrapped in straw, sometimes while they are still alive, and burned, though for variety some are tied in straw and first drowned.
The giving up of faith is called apostasy, and that’s all the Inquisitor really demands. Since he knows that the Padre, the head priest Rodrigues, would not give in, he is forced to witness a preparation for slow death of others and told that these people have giving up of their Christian faith, they would be tortured and killed if Rodrigues refuse to apostatize. If Rodrigues, with his “courtroom” prosecution translated by a “good cop” (Tadanobu Asano) who says, “Hey, step on the metal, it’s only a formality) has any hope of giving up his Christian faith, it is through the influence of Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who finally turns up to convince him to do so.
It’s difficult to believe that such a long, slow-moving story would go by so quickly, but remember that Scorsese is behind it a perfectionist who he must have studied every scene to judge its viability. Not only is the film Oscar-worthy but stands out for a few performances. I would consider Tadanobu Asano as the good cop for awards consideration and perhaps also Issey Ogata as the Inquisitor, but also Yaōsuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro who gave up his Christianity and then gained some silver for turning Rodrigues in. The film is an adaptation of the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, available at Amazon.com for $9.52.
A few concepts are implied. One is the idea that Jews have not been the only people to be persecuted for their religion off and on for two thousand years. Any minority group that is considered “the other,” risks torment by people who cannot tolerate differences. Remember that ISIS captures Yazidi women not only for their different religion but also because they are not, like Muslims, a people of the Book. And the Romans were not the last to bother Christians in the arena. Christians are persecuted today in some North African states, by ISIS, by Al Queda, and of course in the 17th Century by those who are the subjects of this film. If the action in this film reminds you of the ideology of terrorists, who destroy items of antiquity from non-Islamic religions as they did in Syria, you’re up with your current events. All this makes “Silence” not only a film to be seen for intrinsic qualities and careful attention to detail but for its timeliness not only for our own century but throughout history.
Unrated. 162 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online